Here is an interesting excerpt from the Milwaukee JournalSentinel online edition of July 24…
Milwaukee police officer Cassandra Benitez testified that when she first looked into Sutterfield’s car from the passenger side with a flashlight, she did not notice the 9mm Glock on Sutterfield’s hip, despite being extra alert to a possible weapon after seeing a National Rifle Association cap on the back seat.
Benitez testified that her training told her that the presence of NRA gear makes it more likely the person might have a gun.
Yes this is taken out of context… the back story is that MPD officers rolled up on a car sitting in front of a business late at night. The driver of the car was there to use the free Wi-Fi offered by the business. She had a laptop open and operational. She had a gun on her hip (carried openly in accordance with Wisconsin Law). She also has a history in the area, after winning a settlement from the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield for false arrest when she openly carried a gun into a church there. No charges were filed and the City of Brookfield paid her $7500 for troubling her so.
So, at about 12:30 a.m. on Nov. 11, 2011, Milwaukee police spot a car parked in the parking lot of a coffee shop using the Wi-Fi. (Oh how I wish I could say it was a pro-gun Starbucks, but I don’t know for sure.) Officer Benitez and another officer approached the driver of the car who was sitting there, computer open, looking at the internet, because they said the scene looked suspicious. I’m a cop. I know about Terry Stops. This likely qualifies. I mean, it’s 12:30 a.m., the business is closed, an occupied vehicle sitting in the parking lot deserves a look. And, for me, a “look” includes getting identification from the driver to see if there are any active warrants, probation or parole (for burglary maybe?) or anything else. Now here is where things get odd and confusing and a little common sense BY BOTH PARTIES makes them better.
The cops say they want to see some ID, the driver of the car refuses. Now, in some cases, it is your right to refuse to talk to the police. If you are walking down a sidewalk minding your own business, even late at night, and cop says, “Hey, can I talk to you?” You can say, “No.” and just keep on walking. That’s because you have a right to be there and walking on a sidewalk is what people normally do on sidewalks. But if something is out of the ordinary, then things change. Is this a high-crime area? Are you in the area when it is typically not occupied? Are you doing something people don’t ordinarily do at that place and time? There is some latitude here. Police officers can make a Terry stop if they have reasonable suspicion to believe that a crime “has been committed, is being committed or is about to be committed.” That is broad latitude, but it is the law. So the questioning is OK. It is also OK to ask for a driver’s license as proof of ID because, a reasonable person would expect that that someone sitting in the driver’s seat of a car in a parking lot drove it there. So, to insure that the driver is legally licensed to drive, it is reasonable to gather that information. It is perfectly legal to run the plate because that is out in plain sight. So, from the plate you get the name of the registered owner. This reinforces the idea a police officer can reasonably ask the person behind the wheel for ID to check out if that person is legally driving the car. It could have been stolen but not yet reported.
Instead of saying, “Yes, officer, here is my driver’s license, I believe I am here legally and I have a legal firearm with me.” The driver refused to identify herself and locked the doors to her car. If you really want to arouse suspicion from a couple cops do that. Now you have gone from “routine contact” to “things are getting odd.” The citizen only opened her doors when a supervisor arrived and threatened to break the windows of the car to extract her. Tensions are rising and the only thing the cops really know for sure is there is a gun in the car.
It is a mixed up situation. The officers said her weapon was concealed. The citizen said it was not. The jury believed the citizen. But it all could have been avoided with some common courtesy, something all to often lacking today.
I am upset that MPD officers are trained to be on high alert because they see an NRA emblem. But I will always err on the side of officer safety. Certainly I will be more concerned if I see an MS-13 tattoo or an Insane Clown Posse emblem, but I will make note of an NRA emblem on a traffic stop. If I see a gun, or if the citizen tells me he or she has a gun, I have what I think is a very good opening line. “You don’t reach for yours and I won’t reach for mine. Put your hands where I can see them and don’t move them unless I tell you to.”
As concealed carry advocates everyone reading this blog agrees that we carry guns because never know when someone will decide to turn criminal. You can’t tell by looking and words are often not truthful concerning criminal intent. So put yourself in the place of these officers, thinking as you and I think as CCW holders: We never know when a crime will happen. Criminals come in all shapes and sizes and we know for sure there is a gun present at the scene and it is not under our direct control. If a gun is present, I am vigilant, aware, yes, even nervous. I want to take steps to keep the situation safe. That means knowing who I am dealing with, where the gun is and where the person’s hand are at all times.
In the end, the citizen won the court case. But did she win the larger battle? She still got arrested that night. She could have avoided that. She insured that even more police officers will look at Open Carry advocates as over-zealous clowns simply trying to prove a point. Think about how you as a gun owner interact with police. Sure, you know you are a safe, law-abiding, normal citizen, but the cops don’t. And you should not be offended by that because you understand and believe that no one can predict when someone will turn criminal. If you believe that, why shouldn’t cops? Most of the people I’ve arrested looked normal, right up to the time they did something stupid.
The one thing I am glad to see with this case is that it ended in the courts, not on the streets. If you have a dispute with a police officer on the street. If you honestly believe you are doing nothing wrong, the place to prove that is in the courts, not on the street. Don’t argue and scream and fight with cops on the street, do it in court. If the cop is wrong, the cop should be punished. In this case, the officers were wrong and I hope they get some additional training about what constitutes legal open carry. But I also hope the citizen learned that a little diplomacy could have kept the situation from getting out of control.
This is a complicated case. As a cop, if an armed subject starts refusing to cooperate the pucker factor increases greatly. As a citizen, I find it disturbing that an NRA emblem is now grounds for high alert. A little common courtesy could change that.
Other great books for those who carry concealed handguns:
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About the Author: Kevin Michalowski is the former Senior Editor of Gun Digest the Magazine and Tactical Gear Magazine.
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